Writers: Pat Branch, Donna Marie Martino and Jaret Martino
Director: Jaret Martino
It always starts so well, romantic dates, charm and devotion, but soon after single-mother Donna marries Prince Charming Nick, his controlling and abusive nature begins to emerge. Jaret Martino’s film based on the life of his mother and named after her, has an important message to impart but this overly long melodrama prioritises completeness over psychology in its surface examination of domestic violence.
Soon after marrying Nick, Donna begins to notice his resentment towards her toddler son from a previous relationship and as the years pass and their family grows, Nick’s cheating and bad behaviour comes to a head. As Donna makes a crucial decision to protect herself and her children, she discovers that removing Nick from her life is far harder than she hoped.
Donna: Strong Than Pretty begins well, establishing an interesting 1970s context in which a young woman eager to be away from her family meets what appears to be the man of her dreams and the combined pressures of being a young mother, her family’s expectations to marry and the desire to have fun with her less encumbered friends is well drawn.
Martino’s film, co-written by Pat Branch and Donna Marie Martino, also begins (but never follows through on) an interesting subplot looking at the ‘inherited’ nature and context for domestic violence, and the film briefly implies that both Donna and Nick were raised in families where male coercion of women often led to physical assault. Yet, the parallels between Nick’s controlling behaviours which start after marriage and those of his father, along with Donna’s endurance is an area the film fails to fully explore and could have added considerable resonance.
Partly it is because this is Donna’s tale and in reliving their own experiences, the Martinos and Branch focus on her strength of character and eventual success, a noteworthy determination to be at the centre of her own story. But it is a decision that sometimes robs the film of its power, hiding the impact of the violence and suffering she long concealed from others and from the audience which gives Donna: Strong Than Pretty a sanitised TV movie feeling that it can’t overcome.
It is hard not to draw parallels with other recent treatments of domestic violence in popular culture and while many remain frustrated that perpetrator Gray Atkins has yet to face justice, Eastenders created a far more nuanced examination of the origin of controlling and abusive behaviours and their effects on families. So while the empowerment narrative in Donna: Stronger Than Pretty is important, to fully understand it the audience needs some insight into men like Nick and Gray, and even more importantly the reserves that women like Donna and Chantelle find to endure it for so long.
Kate Amundsen plays Donna over 20 years from the 1970s where she is swept away by the romance of being with Nick, to the mid-1990s as she emerges from twenty years of being in his shadow. Amundsen is very sympathetic and captures the range of their relationship with skill, developing from happiness to anxiety, acceptance and eventual determination.
Anthony Ficco’s Nick is a bit of a cardboard villain and it’s clear from the off that he’s a wrong-un. Ficco does nasty and self-serving pretty well but is given no opportunity to explore his character’s motivations or the chance to reflect on templates inherited from his own father and other traditional imprints of masculinity in Nick’s view of his wife and their family.
Jon Schweigart’s cinematography captures Doreen Creede’s luscious 70s and 80s design where much of the plot is set, but although this is Donna’s point of view, the audience feels as though we are only really seeing half this story. Nonetheless, Donna: Stronger Then Pretty is an important real-life story and Donna is a woman many will find inspiring.
DONNA: Stronger Than Pretty will be available on Digital Download from 24th July.